So, without more ado, ladies and gentlemen, please put your hands most forcefully together and give it up for the one, the only, the inimitable, the ever-so wonderful ……………… Scott Thornbury!!
And on he walks.
He looks good; he looks fit, well turned out, up for it. Rather than hide behind the lectern and read from a script, he roams the whole expanse of the colossal stage with practised ease, expertly addressing different sections of the huge auditorium , bringing everybody into the warm glow. He starts brilliantly. He puts the years of important signposts of his life on the screen:
and asks for suggestions as to what happened to him in those years.
“Uh oh! There’s “an element” in here today”, he says in response to a group on the right of the hall that’s having fun calling out the wrong answers to his elicitations.
His voice is warm, fruity, well-modulated, and it comes across perfectly, helped by a good PA system and by the fact that the enormous hall is packed with people. Of the IATEFL conference talks I saw on line, there was something near gender equality as far as quality of presentation is concerned, but nobody else reached Scott’s standard. John Faneslow used to be able to put him in the shade, and Michael Hoey on a good day came close, but these days, Scott’s unrivalled: he’s The Entertainer.
And it’s not just the way he performs of course – the best stand up artist depends on his or her material, right? Scott’s plenary had some very good material, and, what’s more, the content was both coherent and cohesive. Scott led us through 50 years of ELT history pointing out that really there’s nothing new under the sun; that we made lots of mistakes, that some “methods” look really weird today, while others that we think of as new were already there in the 60s, and so on.
Having arrived in his history of ELT at 1975, Scott highlighted the publication of the Strategies series of courseboooks, which he describes as “revolutionary”, since they were the first pedagogical material to be based not on grammatical structures but rather, on functions; and the first to be based not on what the language is, but rather on what you do with it. At this point in the history, Scott came to the main part of his argument.
Two Kinds of Discourse
He suggests that two “intertwining but not interconnecting” discourses can be detected. On the one hand, there’s the “old view” that informs the various methodologies associated with grammar-based teaching. On the other, there’s the “new discourse”, which comes from a functional approach to language and a more sociolinguistic view of language learning
In the figure below, the “old” view is on the left, and the “new” view is on right. From the top, the categories are:
- the nature of language
- units of language acquisition
- the nature of learning
- learning path
Scott suggests that the “Strategies” series of coursebooks resolves the argument between these 2 views in favour of the view on the right. Obviously, Scott likes the “new” view, so he was excited when the Strategies series was published – he felt he was at the dawn of a new age of ELT. But, Scott goes on to say, the matter wasn’t in fact resolved: current ELT practice has reverted to reflect the old view. Today, a grammar-based syllabus is used extensively in the global ELT industry.
So, what happened? Why didn’t things change? Why did the old discourse win out? A particularly important question is: Why does the grammar-based syllabus still reign despite clear findings from SLA research? Scott pointed out that SLA research suggests that teachers can’t affect the route of L2 development in any significant way: the inbuilt syllabus triumphs. Grammatical syllabuses fly in the face of the results of SLA research.
Scott showed results from a survey he did of more than 1,000 teachers, which showed that most teachers say they use a grammar based syllabus because students want it. In a way, they blame the students for an approach they say they’re not entirely happy with.
Despairing of finding a solution inside the ELT world, Scott thought maybe he should look at general education. But, when he took a look, he discovered that things in general education are “terrible”. Everywhere knowledge is being broken down into tiny little bits which can then be tested. He comments: “There’s something really unhealthy in main stream education and it’s exacerbated by a discourse that’s all about McNuggets again.”
Scott then quoted Lin (2013)
“Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardised, marketable product…”
“This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into ‘service providers’.”
So what’s the solution, then? Determined not to end on such a pessimistic note, Scott suggested three endings:
- The pragmatic route
- The dogmatic route
- The dialectic route
The Pragmatic Route says: Accept things the way they are and get on with it.
The Dogmatic (or Dogmetic!) Route says: Get rid of the coursebook, use communicative activities, and shape the language which emerges from genuine attempts at communication. Unfortunately, Scott said, this will never be really popular; at most it will be a footnote in Richards and Rogers. A more extreme route says get rid of the teacher. This isn’t an entirely silly suggestion, but again, it’s unlikely to be widely adopted.
The dialectic route tries, as in the Hegelian model, to overcome the limitations of the thesis and its antithesis by meshing the best from both. Here Scott gave two examples:
- Language in The Wild. Used in Scandinavia. Students do classes but they’re sent out into the real world to do things like shopping.
- The Hands Up Project. Children who can’t get out of the classroom, such as children trapped in Gaza, are taught English by using technology to drive a communicative language learning approach.
The video of Nick in the UK interacting with some lovely kids in Gaza made a very uplifting ending to the talk.
I have two criticisms of Scott’s argument, one minor, one more important:
- The presentation of the two “intertwining but not interconnecting discourses” doesn’t do a good job of summarising differences between grammar-based ELT and a version of communicative language teaching that emphases interaction, student-centred learning, task-based activities, locally-produced materials, and communication for meaningful purposes.
- Scott’s framing of and solution to the problem of the grammar based syllabus is a cop out.
As to the first problem, Scott’s summary of the old and new, intertwined but not interconnected discourses has its limitations. The first three categories are not well-labelled, in my opinion. Language is not cognitive or social: the differences between grammatical and functional descriptions of language, or between cognitive and sociolinguistic approaches to SLA, are hardly well captured in this diagram.
Then, what are “units of acquisition”? How does the contrast between grammar Mcnuggets and communicative routines explain different conceptualisations of these “units”? What does “the nature of learning” refer to? What do “atomistic” and “holistic” mean here? And while the fourth and fifth labels are clear enough, they’re false dichotomies; grammar-based teaching was and is concerned with promoting fluency, and communicative competence.
I think it would have been better to have used a framework like Breen’s (1984) to compare and contrast the syllabus types under scrutiny, asking of each one
- What knowledge does it focus on and prioritise?
- What capabilities does it focus on and prioritise?
- On what basis does it divide and sub-divide what is to be learned?
- How does it sequence what is to be learned?
- What is its rationale?
That way Scott could have looked at a grammar-based, or structural syllabus, a functional syllabus, like the one effectuated in Strategies, and a CLT syllabus as enacted in Dogme. That way, he could have dealt with the serious limitations of the Strategies approach and he could have dealt properly with his own approach. Which brings me to the more important criticism.
Face The Problem
The problem ELT faces is not “How do we resolve the tensions between two different discourses?”; rather it’s the problem which Scott clearly stated and then adroitly side-stepped on his way to a typically more anodyne, less controversial, resolution. The real problem is:
How can we combat the commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning which has turned teachers into ‘service providers’ who use coursebooks to deliver language instruction as if it were a standardised, marketable product?
And the solution, of course, is radical change.
Decentralise. Organise teaching locally. Get rid of the coursebook. Reform the big testing authorities. Reform CELTA. Etc., etc..
Why did Scott side-step all these issues? Why, having clearly endorsed the findings of SLA research which show up the futility of a grammar based syllabus, and having shown how “really unhealthy” current ELT practice is, did Scott not argue the case for Dogme, or for Long’s version of TBLT, or for a learner-centred approach? Why did he not argue for reform of the current tests that dominate ELT, or of CELTA ? Why did Scott dismiss his own approach, Dogme, as deserving no more than a footnote in Richards and Rogers, instead of promoting it as a viable alternative to the syllabus type that he so roundly, and rightly criticised?
Maybe, as he said, it was the end of the conference and he didn’t want to be gloomy. Or maybe it’s because he’s The Entertainer and that part of him got the better of the critical thinker and the reformer in him. If so, it’s a darn shame, however much fun it was to watch the performance.
Breen, M.P. (1984) Process syllabuses for the language classroom. In C.J.Brumfit (Ed.). General English Syllabus Design. ELT Documents No. 118. London: Pergamon Press & The British Council. 47-60.
Lin, A. 2013. Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up, TESOL Quarterly, 47/3.